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Amaranth, a gluten-free super grain, packs a wallop when it comes to nutrition. Often called a grain, it is actually a seed but one that can be cooked, popped or baked.

Amaranth was originally cultivated by the Aztecs of South America who believed the grain had supernatural powers. Human sacrifices to the grain lead Spanish conquerors in the 1500s to ban its use. As a result, the grain virtually disappeared except for in a few remote places where it was cultivated in Mexico and the Andes.

You don't have to be eating gluten-free to enjoy Amaranth. This alternative grain is both nutritious and tasty for anyone, and has a sweet, nutty flavor.

Amaranth is amazingly versatile as I have discovered. You can cook it as a cereal, grind it into flour, pop it like popcorn, sprout or toast it. Before I discovered grains like amaranth, I thought that brown rice was the only whole grain alternative to wheat.

Amaranth is far superior nutritionally with 15-18 percent protein as well lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids that are usually not in grains. It contains calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, and Vitamins A and C. Compared to wheat, it has three times the fiber and five times the iron. It also is credited with having two times more calcium than an equivalent serving of milk.

One-fourth cup uncooked (a serving size) has 182 calories, 3 g. of fat, 32 g. carbohydrate, 5 g. of fiber and 7 g protein. It contains 21 percent of daily recommended iron.

Amaranth whole grains can be a bit tricky to work with. It took me three tries before I realized you have to toast the whole grains first before you cook them.

Hot Amaranth Cereal with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds and Cranberries

1/4 cup whole amaranth grains (available at health food stores or order online $4-$5 per 1 lb.)
2 T. toasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup cranberries, cooked until soft in 2 T. grape juice concentrate
1 T. ground flax (optional)
1 T. vegan rice protein powder (optional)
1 tsp. olive oil or other oil

In a medium saucepan, toast the amaranth grains in olive oil for a few minutes. In the meantime, heat 1 cup of water to boiling in the microwave. Add the boiling water to the grains. Toss in the ground flax and protein powder. Cook the grains uncovered for 15 minutes or until all water is absorbed. Serve with 1-2 T. of cranberry sauce and 1-2 T. of toasted pumpkin seeds.

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